REVIEW: OPETH – “Sorceress”
Opeth is back, and the progressive metal world rejoices because of it. There was no metal album being released this year that I was looking forward to more than ‘Sorceress,’ Opeth’s newest observation. And it was worth the wait, as they have released their strongest album in the past decade. No, the growls are not back – I want to get that out of the way early because I know that is still the first thing nearly everyone wants to know. So if you can’t accept the band without them, you might as well stop reading right now. There are no growls, but this is the heaviest the band has sounded since 2008’s ‘Watershed.’
‘Sorceress’ starts with a brief, classical, guitar-tinged instrumental with a female spoken-word section, setting the mood for the rest of the album. And the mood is melancholy and dark, lyrically and thematically. It’s their darkest since ‘Ghost Reveries’, and the vibe of the entire album is very similar to that earlier masterpiece. The proper start of the album is the title track, “Sorceress”, is a quirky album-starter, with a bass line that almost dances underneath the music, and Mikael Åkerfeldt’s vocals riding smoothly over the top. Of all the tracks, this is the one most similar to their last album, ‘Pale Communion.’ The rest of the album is a prime example of Opeth never repeating themselves.
“The Wilde Flowers” begins with heavy drums and a heavy 70s-prog vibe. The music begins in a suitably mysterious manner, as the story of love gone wrong walks a keyboard-heavy path on jaunty jazz-infused organs courtesy of Joakim Svalberg — who I believe will go down in the annals of Opeth history as the most vital new addition to the band’s sound since Steven Wilson. He may be the second keyboardist the band has had, but he outstrips Per Wiberg on every level. The song then morphs halfway through into the album’s first true metal-sounding section, with a brief guitar heavy interlude before the lighter music returns. As the song unfolded for the first time, I was struck by the aura of vintage Opeth the song had. For lack of a better phrase, this song – and the remainder of the album – sounds more like Opeth than they have in more recent albums, and it is wonderful to hear.
As was mentioned previously, this is easily the heaviest album Opeth has made since departing from their death metal roots. And “Chrysalis” is a prime example of this. This track starts with one of the heaviest riffs we’ve heard from the band since 2008, and the song only builds from there. Now I’ve encountered fans who claim that unless the song is the next “Deliverance” or “Hex Omega”, it’s not heavy. This is foolishness. This isn’t a death metal album, but it is certainly the first prog metal album the band has made since ‘Watershed’. Both ‘Heritage’ and ‘Pale Communion’ are progressive rock albums; heavy at times, but they’re not metal albums. “Chrysalis” is a heavy, twisting, complex and headbang-worthy metal song, and the album keeps that going throughout. To say I was pleasantly surprised when I first listened through it was an understatement; I had almost thought the time of them releasing another heavy album was in the past. But Opeth are nothing if not unpredictable, and unlike a number of other very good prog albums I’ve heard this year, at no point during my initial listen of ‘Sorceress’ could I guess which direction the album was going to take. Many bands put out more complex music, but you can still see where the song is coming from a mile away. I never found that to be the case on this album.
The most unexpected direction the album takes is with “The Seventh Sojourn,” which is mostly instrumental; the main instruments being guest strings which go into a purely Middle Eastern-themed direction. One can almost see the dancing girls, although they are likely wondering what they’re doing here. This track moves directly into the heaviest track on the album, “Strange Brew.” It starts slow, with a light guitar and Mikael singing presumably to a woman of questionable values straight out of Macbeth. That is, until the rhythm section of bassist Martin Mendez and drummer Martin Axenrot drop the proverbial boom, and the shredding and impressive guitar work of Fredrik Åkesson joins with Mikael to kick the listener in the teeth with a full onslaught of metallic bliss. And although lacking in his signature growls, Mikael does let loose the first legitimate screams we’ve heard in quite some time. This song is going to be a highlight when played live.
Opeth round off this wonderfully colorful and varied album with “Era,” – a heavy, progressive track that manages to be downright catchy at the same time. Now “catchy” and Opeth are not words that normally go together, but I challenge the listener not to walk away humming the melody and chorus of this track after listening to it. Axe’s drums are especially thunderous through this song, and it’s an exhilarating way to end an album. The song bleeds into the brief instrumental bookend and brings back the woman from the opening track, giving the listener forty seconds or so to come down from “Era” and wrap up the album nicely.
There is really nothing I don’t like about this album, which I suppose is being less than critical. However, every track, be it heavy or soft and lovely, such as “Sorceress 2,” works with the songs and the vibes around it. But perhaps what really makes this album special to my ears is that even while it’s different from anything they’ve done before, it sounds more like the Opeth I fell in love with when I first bought ‘Blackwater Park’ in 2001, and was introduced to the wide and diverse sound the world of death metal could hold. And like their best work, every listen opens up something new and unheard of. I’ve been listening to it several times a day, every day, for the better part of the past month, and I’m still finding new things in it.
‘Sorceress’ is, simply put, Opeth’s finest album since ‘Ghost Reveries’, and their heaviest since ‘Watershed.’ It is moody, dark, and often mysterious, with its cover art reflecting its true nature perfectly. Once again, Opeth takes the listener along paths that are familiar, as well as through vistas untraveled. In doing so, they remind the progressive metal world why they set the standard for the genre, why they are so unique, and why they alone sit upon the onyx throne of the genre.